Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Talent Is Overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else

Hi again. Similar to the topic of high achievers that I wrote about the other day, quoting JFK at the top, I wanted to give you a review of one of the best selling business books available on the market right now. The title of this very inspiring book is Talent Is Overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else.

Expanding on a landmark cover story in Fortune, a top journalist, Geoff Colvin, debunks the myths of exceptional performance. One of the most popular Fortune articles in many years was a cover story called "What It Takes to Be Great." Geoff Colvin offered new evidence that top performers in any field--from Tiger Woods and Winston Churchill to Warren Buffett and Jack Welch--are not determined by their inborn talents. Greatness doesn't come from DNA but from practice and perseverance honed over decades. Perseverance guarantees that results are inevitable.

And not just plain old hard work, like your grandmother might have advocated, but a very specific kind of work. The key is how you practice, how you analyze the results of your progress and learn from your mistakes, that enables you to achieve greatness.

Now Colvin has expanded his article with much more scientific background and real-world examples. He shows that the skills of business—negotiating deals, evaluating financial statements, and all the rest—obey the principles that lead to greatness, so that anyone can get better at them with the right kind of effort. Even the hardest decisions and interactions can be systematically improved.

I've couched over 1,650 small businesses owners from around the world in various industries, economic conditions, cultural environment, and mindset. Those that tend to fail are far different than those that succeed. Colvin explains some of the most common factors of those who succeed. What does he mean by perseverance? Well, just imagine if you ran most of the race but felt too tired and too stressed and lost hope at the last few feet before the finish line. And, your competitors don't stop until they cross the finish line. If you give up, you'll stand a 0% chance of succeeding. But, if you stay persistent despite setbacks, despite challenges, despite the extra push you need to give yourself, YOU HAVE A 100% CHANCE OF MAKING IT! Again, persistence guarantees that results are INEVITABLE!

This new mind-set, combined with Colvin's practical advice, will change the way you think about your job and career and will inspire you to achieve more in all you do. I've read a lot of books on mindset topics and this one is definitely cream of the crop. I'd also look up John Assaraf, he is lso one of my favorites, and has written several books related to mindset and marketing for the small business owner.

World-class talent isn't something you are born with. It must be developed over many years of unflagging dedication, education, and "deliberate practice" of a key skill, which requires consistent repetition and immediate feedback. Colvin credits "deliberate practice" for the extraordinary achievements of phenoms like Jack Welch.

Chapter Seven, "Applying the Principles in Our Lives," presents more good ideas in 20 pages than many self-help books manage in 200. Among them: Treat business news like case studies by carefully considering what you would do in the place of a struggling leader; periodically go back and practice the fundamental skills of your craft (for example, analyze the ratios in a financial statement with pen and paper instead of software); and constantly deepen your knowledge of your industry.

Colvin spends much of Chapter Nine, "Performing Great at Innovation," tearing down straw men, including the presumably widespread beliefs that creativity depends on flashes of insight and that great inventions are created from whole cloth rather than built on the work of earlier inventors.

Anyone managing employees should consider this question: How do we balance the need to stretch people, which requires that they grapple with difficult and unfamiliar tasks, with the need for them to deliver peak performance at all times? The author's response is nuanced, but he is a fan of the stretch.

Just as parents and teachers develop chess, sports, and music prodigies, Colvin suggests they foster business skills in young children. It's a brilliant piece of work, and it deserves to be studied by anyone involved in human development.

Colvin's new book actually grew out of an assignment at Fortune. A couple years ago he was asked to contribute a piece for a special issue on great performance in business. "The resulting article," according to Colvin, "provoked a more intense response than anything else I've written." It is meticulously written, and the assertions made in the book are based on rigorous scientific research. The principal researcher who informs many of the findings discussed in the book is Professor K. Anders Ericsson, Conradi Eminent Scholar at Florida State University. Ericsson and his colleagues have been conducting study after study on expert performance for over thirty years, and their work may just revolutionize how leaders are developed in the future. At least, I hope so.

Colvin's provocative title neatly summarizes the premise of his book. Here are a few of the key messages from Talent Is Overrated:

  1. Natural gifts and talents, if they exist at all, aren't what we think they are and they are not enough to explain world-class performance in chess, music, ballet, medicine, golf, business, or any other endeavor.
  2. Staggeringly high IQs also don't characterize the great performers. Sometimes they champions have higher than average intelligence, but in many instances they are just average.
  3. Years of experience don't necessarily make someone a high-performer, let alone the greatest performer. And, as startling as it might sound, sometimes more years of experience can mean poorer performance compared to those newly graduated in a specialty.
  4. If natural talent, high IQ, and even years of experience don't explain greatness, then what does? The factor that best explains great performers is what the researchers call "deliberate practice."
  5. Colvin admits that "Deliberate practice is a large concept, and to say that it explains everything would be simplistic and reductive." Therefore, if we are going to become experts in anything, it's essential that we understand what deliberate practice is and what it isn't. What most of us do when we "practice," it turns out, often does not lead to great performance at all, and it may just contribute to being mediocre and could even make us worse.

Colvin does a superb job of providing us with insights into what deliberate practice is, what it isn't, and how it works. He also applies the concepts to our personal lives, our organizations, and to innovation. In blogs over the next couple weeks, I'll share with you some of the key components of deliberate practice and propose ways in which we can apply these concepts to the development of leaders. In the meantime, if you'd like to join me in the dialogue, I urge you to read Talent Is Overrated. I'm certain it will influence how you think about what you can do to become a better leader and what you can do to develop those with whom you work. If you aspire to world-class performance, this will be time well spent.

So, who is the author of Talent is Overrated? He's a very talented person, ironically. Geoff Colvin, Fortune's senior editor at large, is one of America's most respected business journalists. He lectures widely and is the regular lead moderator for the Fortune Global Business Forum. A frequent guest on CNBC's Squawk Box and other TV programs, Colvin appears daily on the CBS Radio Network, reaching seven million listeners each week. He also co-anchored Wall Street Week with Fortune on PBS for three years.

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